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On Contact: Legacy of Empire

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the importance of the scholar Edward Said with Professor Hamid Dabashi. Dabashi is professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Every empire, as Edward Said points out, in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, Said reminds us, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilisatrice. As Said knew, Western civilization is a fiction, neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability. Non-Western civilizations were and are invented constructs, negational formulations of the Western world, used not to understand or explore reality but to justify pillage and domination. 

Hamid Dabashi’s new book is On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past.

YouTube channel: On Contact

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Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/on-contact-1

Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the importance of the scholar, Edward Said, with Professor Hamid Dabashi.

Hamid Dabashi: Edward’s insight into the Constitution of the Oriental is identical with James Baldwin with W.E.B. Du Bois, with all of these giants of intellectuals of African-American experience with the idea that W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness of African-Americans.  We, too, we could recreate the way we saw ourselves and following from W.E.B. Dubois revolutionary insight, and the way that Europeans told us how we are.  So, we need to place Edward Said in a larger frame of reference.  Yes, his insight was exceptionally revolutionary liberating, not just people in the Arab and Muslim world, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the whole movement of subaltern studies.  But also bring it back to United States and experience that today we see in Black Lives Matter, in Native American history, et cetera.

CH: Every Empire, as Edward Said points out, in its official discourse, has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort.  “And sadder still,” Said reminds us, “…there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes, watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilisatrice.  . As Said knew, Western civilization is a fiction, neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability. Non-Western civilizations were and are invented constructs, negational formulations of the Western world, used not to understand or explore reality but to justify pillage and domination.”  Joining me to discuss the fictions those in the West tell themselves about themselves and how these fictions are used to justify inflicting suffering and violence on others is Hamid Dabashi, author of “On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past” and Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.  So, as I mentioned before we went on the air, I re-read “Orientalism,” which is an explosive book, we forgot how it reconfigured the way we speak about imperialism, colonialism, I think, without question, one of the seminal texts of political science of the 20th century and just lay out its importance for us.

HD: Thanks, Chris, for having me.  As you said, it is important for us to reimagine 1978 when Edward Said, for the first time, published “Orientalism.”  The book was very much the result or the aftershock of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.  As you know, at the time, Edward was a professor of English and Comparative Literature here in Columbia and the perception of the media, the--in fact the passage that you just cited from his conception of a--what he called asayer intellectuals as opposed to naysayer intellectuals is precisely what Trump prompted him to start sitting and writing “Orientalism.”  To be sure, there were other critical thinkers like Anwar Abdul Malik and others who had kind of hinted at the idea of knowledge and power.  And also, there were other thinkers before Edward Said, Nietzsche, and Foucault, et cetera who had talked about this.  But Edward Said put such a potent political force into the argument in the--writing from Columbia, writing from New York, writing from the heart of American Empire.  Intellectual heart of American Empire, if one can--is a contradiction in terms, intellectual heart of an empire.  It became exclusive.  And at the time, I was a graduate student at Penn.  And when I read it for the first time, it, as I say in my book on Edward Said, it had a liberating effect on generations of immigrant intellectuals, like me, who were born and raised in the context.  I mean, I was born in 1951.  I was two years old when Americans staged the coup of 1953 in my country.  So, anytime anybody tells me “Go back where you came from,” I say, “Excuse me, you came to me before I came--before I came to you.”

CH: Right.  That’s right.

HD: So, as a--as a--as a child of the 1953 Coup, I was born with the horrors of empire and the horrors of staging coups, which we just saw, Americans were trying to stage a coup in their own country.  The language of the intellectual moral, imaginative language of orientalism was liberating for not just the people, coming from Latin America, from Africa from Asia.  This is the significance of the book that many things that we knew had happened suddenly had a potent political and ideological language would wish to begin to talk.  So I--as I always say, you don’t become Saidian, Said liberates you to begin to talk your own Gramsci, an inventory of who it is that you are.

CH: What I found fascinating rereading the book and he begins, you know, way back in the 1500s, is that the argument for or the justification of empire never changes.  It doesn’t change when the British go into India or Egypt, or when we go into Iraq.  It’s always the same mythological celebration of a fictitious culture and the negation of another.  The--even the words are the same.  And lay out what that is.  And it’s a very dangerous construct.  Because what it really is, is about attempting to morally justify the suppression and subjugation of the other in the name of a moral order.

HD: Chris, it is a conspiracy theory before we had conspiracy theory.  Namely the construction of the mythology, that suddenly from classic antiquity to Hebrew Bible, all the way comes is a Hegelian.  Comes to a teleological progression comes to the gates of Brandenburg in Germany or in New York, is a bizarre mythology.  It cuts off, for example, classical antiquity from its own natural Mediterranean contexts.  It cuts off the Hebrew Bible from its own natural context, and begins--I sometimes call it a choo-choo train theory of history.  It begins in Athens and comes forward to Europe without any interruption, without any influence from other cultures, erases its other cultures.  But there is something equally important, it is not just the West that is a myth and is a fabrication.  It is a commodified ideological fetish.  It is classical out of the first volume of Karl Marx.  Edward was not a Marxist, he was a literary theorist and he came through to this idea through the ingenuity of his thinking about the--what the hell is this West?  But it is a period of a capitalist modernity when commodity is fetishized and the West becomes the ideological commodification of this thing called the West.  And not only itself is a--is a fetish and as a myth.  Anything that it touches is gutted out of its historical complexity, Islam, China, India, whatever you put next to this West is gutted out of its historical complexity and becomes an illusion, just like the West.  So--but the fact remains that today, in the aftermath of all of these globalization of the--of the Imperial experience, we don’t have that epicenter that began--that used to call itself the West.  The West has imploded and so has all its other binaries.  But again, going back to Edward Said, it was Edward’s intuitive understanding of this mythology that began all of this discourse that has dissolved into our conversation today.

CH: He himself, of course, spoke at great personal cost on behalf of the Palestinian people.  He himself, of course, was Palestinian.  You have suffered this kind of right-wing cancel culture for doing things which universities should do.  I believe you put on a Palestinian Film Festival, to raise this truth is not cost-free.  And maybe you can just talk a little.  You write about it in your book.  Talk a little bit about your own experience, which is just appalling.  Now here you are in a university setting, you are curating a Palestinian Film Festival and I’ll let you go from there.

HD: I--as I say in my book, Chris, I was not attracted to Palestine because of Edward Said.  I was drawn to Edward Said because of Palestine.  My commitment to the Palestinian cause is--goes back to my childhood, to my father’s socialism and labor union activists and so forth.  So, for me to put together a Palestinian Film Festival when Edward was still with us, and in fact, he gave the inaugural keynotes when we opened it back in 2003, just about a year before he passed away, 2003, was very normal.  Very--I was teaching a course on Middle Eastern cinema, I had collected a rather unique constellation of Palestinian films and I wanted to stage it.  But putting together a Palestinian festival in--at Columbia University in the City of New York rubbed many people the wrong way, because in effect, you were just talking about humanity of a nation, of the people that have all the cultures, have poetry, have--like everybody else.  But that simple suggestion of the humanity of Palestinians, humanity of Palestinians was not waiting for me.  It has to do with prolonged resistance to occupation and eradication as we see it all the way today, became very troubling for many people in the city in this campus.  Edward to the--to his dying day, thought I was insane to even think of putting together a Palestinian Film Festival.  But we persisted.  And eventually, around the collection of my Palestinian films, we created an archive, we created a website, we created--I published the book, “Dreams of a Nation.”  And then eventually, we established a center for Palestine studies, the first of its--of its kind.  Now, what that tells you is in fact, you, your own work, is a perfect example of it, that there are few who dared the elements.  We are what Edward called the naysayers.  But these naysayers are all over the--over the country.  They--the banality of this Republican-Democrat kind of seesaw that you see in politics doesn’t reflect the reality of what this country is about and goes back--all the way back to the 19th century.  So, I don’t think I was unique, or I was the only one.  In fact, when we did the Palestinian festival in 19--in 2003, a close friend of mine, who is a graphic artist, gave me a poster of a Week of Solidarity with Palestinian People, that a group of Iranian and Arab and American and Turkish students had put together in New York 30 years before me in 1973.  So, this has always been through--but there has not been a manifestation of it.  There was no way of registering.  There was--there was no way of communicating.  And this is, again, Edward constantly talks about his frustration that he had to do with--begin with the alphabet of talking about the humanity of Palestinians.  So we did that and…

CH: I want to--I want to--I want to come--I want to come back to--I’m going to come back to that because I want to talk about what--the reaction.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about Edward Said, Orientalism, and the fiction of empire with Professor Hamid Dabashi. 

Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the fictitious ideas of empire and western civilization with Professor Hamid Dabashi.  I want you to talk about what they--because if you attempt to present a reality that is outside the dominant ruling narrative, you pay.  This was the personal attacks that were directed against you, which followed Edward Said throughout his life were vicious.  Camp--you can talk about what happened, Campus Watch, Liz Cheney puts you on a list of suspicious professors.  Your email accounts are spammed.  And let’s remember that this is for, I think, by any definition, about honest, intellectual and artistic inquiry of another culture.  I want you to just lay out specifically how they came after you.

HD: To begin with, Chris, we had--I had--suddenly, I had a phone call from the security at Columbia that we need to increase security.  I said, “For what?”  He said, “Because of this festival.  People are coming to disrupt it.”  I said, “What do you mean increased security?”  He said “Well, we have to have increased security.”  I said, “This is a film festival.  It’s not a warzone.”  He said, “No, we will have plainclothes.”  And then my colleague in the security said that you have to pay for it.  I mean, where do I pay for it?  How do you exactly put together--you can walk into Ford Foundation and give me money for a Palestinian Film Festival.  Very meager money that we had, I said, “Fine.”  You know, I want to have to go with the--with the film festival, not knowing how I was--I was going to pay for the extra security.  But much of it, Chris, is also bluffing.  I mean, they project more power than they actually have.  But nevertheless, it’s very disconcerting and very disrupting.  Next thing I know, Campus Watch has put me on a list.  Next thing I know Liz Cheney has put me on another list as suspicious professor and it all culminated in this book by--I mean I forgot his name, “101 Most Dangerous Professor,” I made it to the list of a book called “101 Most Dangerous Professors” that me and my colleague want to show you.

CH: Is this--is Pipes?  Is this--was this Pipes?

HD: No, no, no, no.  It’s a--it’s a--it’s a buddy of Pipes.  Pipes that run the Campus Watch.  Horowitz--David Horowitz was his name.  That probably you are on--you’re on that list, too.  “101 Most Dangerous Professors.”  What does that mean?  It’s not the question of intellectual honesty, it is intimidating.  They know for a fact I don’t--I’m not independently wealthy.  I live paycheck by paycheck.  They want to disrupt your life.  They want to disrupt the life of your family.  They want to make sure that make a lesson out of you, make you--make you so fearful for your own life that you shut up.  I, of course--and then worst of all, accusing you of your horror of anti-Semitism while anti-Semites are frequent fliers to Tel Aviv and active in supporting--I mean, you can’t be more anti-Semite than Donald Trump and Donald Trump was the most active, aggressive, violent, pro-Israeli President, perhaps in US history.  But then intimidating people to silence with--especially with the horror of accusation of anti-Semitism, that you have to constantly argue I am not anti-Semite, I am critical of Zionism.  And in fact, as you probably know, I have written more critical books about Iran than I have about Israel and against Saudi Arabia and against you name it.  I mean, I’m persona non grata anywhere.  There’s--I have--I told by my colleagues, “Name one country, one state apparatus, of which I’m not critical if you can find.”  I’ve never singled out Israel for criticism.  But it is--the other side of it is, I was once in London at the office of my editor and I saw a copy of this “101 Most Dangerous Professor.”  I said, “What are you doing with this?”  He said, “I’m trying to--figure out which one of you we haven’t published yet.”  It has two sides.  It is--if you--if you pull out and get fearful and they think you’re--they have succeeded, yes, then you are silenced.  But if you fight back, knock the wood, in June, I’ll be 70 years old.  I have been fighting, Chris, as you have, I’m a great fan of your work and admiring your courage, all my life.  I mean, what--it’s not a choice that I had.  I see a horror happening.  I see Jared Kushner nominated for a Nobel Prize.  I get--I mean, again, like Edward in his last interview, magnificent interview, he said, when he was battling cancer, as you know, he said, “All I need is a picture of Ariel Sharon and I--and I--and my blood start boiling.  And I--and I go back and--so it is--it is wrong, Chris, as I’m sure you would--you would agree to picture ourselves as victims.  It is a vicious fight.  But we are fighters.  We fight for all of my life.  And it is not a fight that I do it consciously, I do it naturally, I do it for Iraq, I do it for Kurds, I do it for Iran, I do it--again, it is part of who you are.  And it is integral to your moral imagination.  It’s evident in my scholarship.  It’s not just an article I write or a film festival I put together.

CH: Well, it’s the Gramscian distinction of whether you’re going to be an organic intellectual or a tool of an Edward of course fought those intellectuals who had sold their souls as you have.  I want to talk about the construct, the reason that people like you or Edward or others are attacked I think so viciously is because this truth that you speak about the reality beyond the borders of Empire and about ourselves is one that obliterates the raison d’etre for Empire itself.  So just in--briefly, tell us the--and Edward of course, spends orientalism doing this with masterful detail, but tell us the myth itself.  The myth we tell about ourselves, and then importantly, the myth that is always told about those who we dominate.  What are those two myths?

HD: The dominant myth is that Western civilization is God’s gift to humanity.  There is something pseudo-Christian in this.  I hesitate to say Christian, because liberation theology is also from--in Latin America, comes from Christianity.  Your own struggle has a Christian component to it, but there is a kind of a Western Christian, White Christianity that goes all the--all the way all the way back to Bartolome de Las Casas that this is--this is the responsibility.  The--when you cited Edward Said, the mission to civilize, that is the world is barbaric, the world has gone wrong.  And the mission of the White person, White man is to civilize and liberate.  This is the responsibility.  So it assumes a certain bizarre moral responsibility for the White British in India, for the French in Algeria, for the Belgians in Congo, et cetera, et cetera.  On the other side of it, the complexity, the richness, the power of art, culture, humanity, poetry, of the entirety of human being from Latin America, Africa, Asia, is obliterated.  The best of them are stolen from Africa, Latin America, et cetera, brought to museums here in United States and Europe, as preparatory, a sort of infantile stage of Western civilization.  So, you--there is a cannibalization, there’s an intellectual and artistic cannibalization of the rest of the world in order to project for yourself the fiction of a teleology, of a Hegelian teleology, that everything that happened before history was only preparatory to come to this seminal moment of history.  Now, critique of this was of course, long before Edward Said.  Max Weber called it iron cage, this this idea, this way of thinking.  Marx was critical of it.  So it is not just that Edward Said again, Edward Said was building on a much larger intellectual history that came before him.  But what is important was potent, he laser beamed on the Arab world, on the Oriental world, on the predicament of the Palestinian.  And chapter and verse showed how the construction of this myth of the West was at the expense of dehumanization, of robbing of humanity of the rest of the world, and as a result did the preparatory work which, in a book that he did subsequently, “Culture and Empire” to see how within the construction of European civilization, it’s literally a poetic, artistic musical aspect, you have the remnants of that cannibalization.

CH: And of course, Edward was a scholar of Conrad, who, in “Heart of Darkness,” and even more, perhaps pointedly and his short story, “Outpost of progress,” exposes the European colonizers as the true barbarians, which as all of us who have spent as much time as I have on the outer reaches of Empire, understand.  Edward writes, and we’ll just close it having you comment on this passage, every European and what he could say about the Orient was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.  Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall call additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures have rarely offered the individual anything, but imperialism, racism and ethnocentrism for--ethnocentrism for dealing with other cultures.  So Orientalism aided and was aided by general cultural pressures that tended to make more rigid in the sense of difference between the European and Asiatic parts of the world.  My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine, willed over the Orient, because the Orient was weaker and the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.

HD: It is important, Chris, to remember the very insight that you just cited by Edward namely the Constitution of Europe as the epicenter of humanity and as the zenith of human civilization, was done at the expense of, first of all, constitution of something called Oriental.  I suddenly, as an Iranian, as a human being rooted in one of the oldest civilizations on planet Earth, was robbed of my historicity and I became an Oriental.  And I--to this day, I have no clue what’s an Oriental.  Well, how am I supposed to behave to be to be an Oriental?  A few years ago, somebody in Arizona with a thick Southern accent told me, “I do detect a little bit of accent.”  Talking to me.  I said, “Well, I do detect a little bit of accent in you, too.  You hear my own--my accent, but you don’t hear your own accent.  Everybody has an accent.”  This is what I--but it was done also to Native Americans.  It was also done to African-American.  Edward’s insight into the Constitution of the Oriental is identical with James Baldwin with, W.E.B. Du Bois with all of these giants of intellectuals of African-American experience, with the idea that W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness of African Americans.  We, too, we will create the way we saw ourselves and following from W.E.B. Du Bois revolutionary insight and the way that Europeans told us how we are.  So we need to place Edward Said in a larger frame of reference.  Yes, his insight was exceptionally revolutionary liberating, not just people in the Arab and Muslim world, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the whole movement of subaltern studies, but also bring it back to United States and experience that today we see in Black Lives Matter, in Native American history, et cetera.

CH: Great.  We’re going to stop there.  That was Professor Hamid Dabashi about his new book “On Edward: Said Remembrance of Things Past.”  Thank you.

HD: My pleasure.

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